Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Thanksgiving Memory

Smartmom and Hepcat are making Thanksgiving at home on Third Street for themselves and their two moms -- Groovy Grandma from the Upper West Side and Clever Grandma, who is visiting from her farm in Northern California.

This is the first Thanksgiving they've given in a long time. For years they celebrated Thanksgiving at Groovy Cousin's with the extended Smartmom clan—aunts, uncles and cousins on her mother's side. It was always a spirited party full of great food and raucous conversation. But the extended cousins have started spending Thanksgiving in Florida or Baltimore and Smartmom and family are doing it closer to home.

Groovy Aunt and Bro-in-Law have been throwing Thanksgiving for Smartmom's family, Groovy Grandma and some or all of Bro-In-Laws immediate family, including his sister from Bennington, Vermont, since they got married four years ago. They make a beautiful party in their Prospect Park West apartment. The food is delicious and the room always looks gorgeous -- candle lit, autumnal flowers, plates in deep greens and blues.

Prospect Park is just across the street and one year, after the turkey course, they took a pre-dessert walk to Longs Meadow—a refreshing break that was also just the thing for the digestion.

In 2001 Hepcat's sister and brother-in-law from San Francisco joined the festivities at Groovy Aunt's. After the party, they wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to see Ground Zero, which was still burning. Up until that day, Smartmom had been emotionally unable to visit Ground Zero. But on that first Thanksgiving after the 11th, she felt ready to join her S.F. relatives on their journey across the river.

Before getting on the bridge, the three stopped at the River Cafe for a drink. The River Cafe has always been the pentultimate place to bring out-of-towners for fabulous food and a view of, well, the Twin Towers and the lower Manhattan skyline. The three sat down in the tented outdoor section of the restaurant and stared at lower Manhattan without the Twin Towers—a bracing site. After downing stiff drinks (scotch, bourbon) the three felt ready for their walk.

Sort of.

Smartmom was actually quite nervous about walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, as the bridge and other New York City landmarks had been cited many times as major Al Queda targets. Everytime she took a subway, rode across a bridge or was in a tunnel she felt imperiled. It was a strange time, New Yorkers felt under attack in a very personal way.

But Smartmom didn't mention her own fears—not a word. She stiff-upper-lipped it and braved the walk like the ever-reliable New York booster and tour guide that she is. Her relatives seemed to have no fear of walking across the bridge (what did they know?). Smartmom, on the other hand, felt the familiar flutter of anxiety that had been a constant since the 11th. She remembers thinking: how ironic if we're blown up on Thanksgiving night wanting to pay our respects to the dead at Ground Zero. Death was never far from her thoughts back then.

At first it seemed they were the only ones on the bridge—that they had this magnificent bridge all to themselves. After a bit, they did see the occasional biker, the after-Thanksgiving walker. Smartmom worried here and there about potential suicide bombers (no one said she was rational). But for the most part, it was quiet on the bridge that most stunning New York evening. The air was crisp and cool, the sky was clear blue and there were stars over the breathtaking skyline. Transcendently healing is a phrase that comes to mind—the three felt blessed by Roebling's architectural masterpiece: its consumate New Yorkness, its lyricism, its beauty.

But as they got closer to Ground Zero, their mood changed. Fear and aprehension took over. Smartmom, despite seeing thousands of images, wasn't sure what to expect, wasn't sure she could handle seeing what had happened to her city. And even from the bridge they could smell the deeply mournful smell, the indescribable odor that permeated Lower Manhattan for months. The color of the sky was different over there too: it was the rusty orange haze of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

The three walked past Trinity Church toward the site. They read the hand-written messages from people around the world. They saw the make-shift memorials, the candles, the bouquets of store-bought flowers. There were many people doing the same thing—people who needed to make contact with this place that haunted their days and nights. The city was still grieving.

Finally, they saw the site, which was still burning, white ash everywhere, piles of debris, unimaginable destruction. Rescue workers were digging, searching for bodies, beginning the clean-up process that would take months. High wattage lights lit the remaining steel frame of the towers, sculptural in a way, ravaged but still standing like all the survivors.

They walked silently taking it all in, not even sure what they were seeing. They went past stores that were still full of merchandise petrified in white ash. They passed a stationery store that had a whirling rack of World Trade Center postcards also covered in white powder and debris.

After an hour or so, it was hard to tell, they had to walk away. The smell, the smoke, the darkness of what they were feeling led them uptown, anywhere but there. They walked past the vendors selling buttons, t-shirts. They walked past a firehouse that had lost men, the front door open wide, the sidewalk covered with notes, candles, and flowers -- a familiar sight back then.

They found themselves in Tribeca, walking aimlessly uptown and away from that smell. They walked silently but felt a certain closeness having braved the journey together. They wanted to sit in another bar, have another drink but they couldn't find a place that was open -- strange for New York City. It was after mid-night, maybe later, when Smartmom said good bye and really hugged her dear relatives, who were staying in an uptown hotel. She hailed a cab and rode to Brooklyn alone. Riding across the bridge, she felt the familiar flutter of anxity as she whisked above the East River, bracing for disaster.


At 1:13 AM, Blogger Udge said...

Excellent piece, very moving.

At 2:12 AM, Blogger Udge said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger brooklynfox said...

SM, I agree with Udge. This was a moving one. I had almost forgotten how those days felt. The fear, the sadness, the disbelief, the smoke, the orange sky. I remember feeling like Manhattan was a giant morgue. This post brings it back very clearly. We NEED to remember. Thanks. RFJ

At 7:10 AM, Blogger mamainwaiting said...

the piece was very moving and a strong reminder of that time here in New York. It's amazing to think how soon after thanksgiving was - bearly over one month. We were all pretty vulnerable and frightened. I never went down to Ground Zero - Just being in Tribeca was hard enough. All the emergency vehicles, red cross stations. It was a difficult and scary time.
For me the hardest thing was walking though union square park about one week after the tragedy and seeing all the makeshift memorials to the victims with their color xeroxed flyers, flowers and candles. I still can see some of the pictures. People were crying, praying, photographing, reading the descriptions and memorials with a profound intensity. Our hearts were all broken.


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